This AINsight guest column, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” originally appeared in Aviation International News.
Every week, my API colleagues and I find ourselves in a “change agent” role. Especially when we hear from corporate HR representatives, calling to tell us that they’ve lost a pilot and need to hire a replacement. In many instances, these conversations are regarding a pilot who has left for higher compensation and a better work/life balance that includes hard days off.
So let me set the scene for this all-too-commonplace occurrence: the HR rep knows that their company’s compensation package is well under market rate. And often they’re flying smaller or older aircraft based in a small aviation market. That typically means it’s going to take time and money to recruit and relocate someone into that market.
This is when one of us puts on our change agent hat and starts the hard conversation with “please don’t shoot the messenger.” As their partner, we work to bring clarity to the current hiring environment, where it’s almost impossible to retain pilots and maintenance personnel if compensation and schedule are not competitive. Without these two key elements, it’s almost guaranteed to create a domino effect.
Then we’ll share with the HR rep that if they’re losing people for a combination of reasons, it’s got to be something more than just a single “stop-gap” fix. Things need to change department-wide. They can’t successfully recruit and meet their requirements if they’re not an employer of choice.
Employer of Choice
And that often brings us to the question: what makes an aviation organization desirable? How do companies actually become employers of choice?
At least in part, it means creating and maintaining a good balance between compensation and life, and that means carefully incorporating hard days off, which requires solid leadership. The goal, of course, is to foster a stable environment in which employees—recognizing that their company leaders are true leaders—become avid, enthusiastic followers. And they would never think of leaving.
Corporate HR partners are smart. They know that if they increase the compensation rate for the next hire, then it’s going to create internal equity issues. Typically, the whole department probably is due for a reset—and quickly.
But we all recognize that this kind of change is generally slow to happen unless it happens at the very top of the company. And, meanwhile, with every aviation professional they lose, it’ll cost them so much more.
After all, when hiring new talent one must factor in the cost of getting a type rating—if you can even schedule a class. Plus, there’s the cost of relocating the employee. Not to mention the internal costs to the organization, such as onboarding.
Most flight departments in smaller cities often support the major employer in the region. They’ve likely never had to pay top dollar and there are often local pilots who wish to remain local. Like others in their family, they want to work for the region’s major employer. But today, major airlines are recruiting them away with commutable jobs, as are other flight departments on the field.
This brings us to the recognition that, no matter where you are located, it’s critical to provide that all-important life balance. And it must happen now before another pilot resigns. Additionally, it likely means that compensation needs to increase at the same time. Increasing cost and headcount simultaneously is for sure a hard sell, but I promise you it will cost more if you don’t.
To which the HR rep asks, “Well, how can I do that? That’s the cart before the horse. We don’t have enough pilots to create a flexible schedule.”
The rep realizes that they’ll probably have to hire two people, and I agree. “But what about the present?” they continue. “It might take months to onboard another pilot and create the necessary flexibility and my team needs work/life balance right now.”
That’s when we’ll suggest that, in the meantime, they can achieve this by employing contract pilots.
Employing Contract Pilots
Most contract pilots are corporate pilots who chose to fly for another organization on their hard days off. Others are full-time contractors taking advantage of the “gig economy.” It can be very lucrative with today’s daily contractor rates, all based on supply versus demand. And this means the cost to the employer is high due to the fact that the contractor needs to be provided by a third-party employer of record for multiple safety and compliance reasons.
When your organization is overtaxed—and your team sees their former colleague happy in their new job—it’s critical to send the message of change. Make the investment before it’s too late and you lose more staff. I’ve often suggested that companies hire the contractor proactively, not as a last resort.
Contractors can be a quick and temporary fix to what could become a very expensive and longer-term problem. And the decision to do so demonstrates to any potential employee that you are, indeed, addressing the schedule now. Not just a promise of “we will when we can.”
Have the Hard Conversations
When will the demand for higher compensation go away? It will only happen when the airlines have enough pilots and, as a broader aviation industry, we balance out life and work. But that clearly isn’t going to happen overnight.
In fact, I estimate that it will be about six to eight more years of battling all the issues that compensation and training challenges provoke. Of course, that’s assuming the prevalence of relatively normal conditions, without another traumatic crisis that affects air travel, such as a pandemic or a 9/11-type event.
Now’s the time to educate your HR rep, business partners, and accountable executives about what’s really going on. Don’t shy away from having hard conversations. Build your business case using market-based compensation data.
Heck, forward them this article as proof that times are changing. Prove to yourself and your organization what it will take to hire an experienced pilot in your aviation market. And face the fact of how losing good people will create a domino effect—plus cost you more than you ever expected or can afford.
Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.